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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 20 June, 2019
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'It's vitally important we qualify, for the longevity and survival of the sport here'

Ireland begin their quest to qualify for a second consecutive Olympic Games in France on Saturday morning.

THE TOKYO OLYMPICS remain over 400 days away, but after months of training camps and hard graft, the Ireland men’s hockey team embark on the road to the 2020 Games away from the spotlight in a small seaside French town tomorrow.

While the women’s national team bid to move within two games of the Olympics at Banbridge on Saturday, Alexander Cox’s Green Machine will begin the campaign to reach a second consecutive Games against Scotland [10.15am] in Le Touquet.

Shane O'Donoghue celebrates his goal with Michael Darling Shane O'Donoghue and Ireland get their FIH Series Finals campaign underway on Saturday. Source: Inpho

Ireland head into the FIH Series Finals tournament as top seeds and, off the back of their qualification for Rio and last year’s World Cup in India, will be strongly tipped to finish in the top two and advance through to a two-legged playoff tie later this year.

But, just as they encountered four years ago during their rollercoaster ride to Rio, the road to Olympic qualification is never straightforward and the team, now under the guidance of Dutchman Cox, are desperate to replicate the feat in this cycle.

Naturally, there have been changes in personnel and the change in head coach means Ireland come into this tournament promising to play a slightly different brand of hockey, with Cox making a number of big selection calls.

The likes of Alan Sothern and Kirk Shimmins, both veterans of the squad and 2016 Olympians, have been left at home and following encouraging warm-up outings against USA and France last month, Saturday marks the end of a seven-month process and the start of the serious business.

“We’ve been implementing some small changes on how we play on and off the ball and I think it’s really starting to show in our performances and in general, things are moving in the right direction,” Shane O’Donoghue tells The42.

“There’s a nice blend of youth and experience. It will be about using the experience of Rio and remembering the journey it took to get there. It wasn’t straightforward and, at times, we clung on. We need to take the good moments from that and the moments that really stood to us and got us over the line. It’s going to require the exact same over here.”

The disappointment of last year’s World Cup campaign still lingers for the squad after they failed to get out of their pool in India, but that experience has focused minds ahead of a big summer.

Ireland get their Pool A campaign underway against 23rd-ranked Scotland tomorrow, before facing Egypt and Singapore on Sunday and Tuesday respectively, with the top team bypassing the quarter-final stage. 

Just as it is for the Ireland women, a top-two finish in this tournament will assure Cox’s side of a place in an Olympic qualifier in Autumn, and O’Donoghue — Ireland’s leading goalscorer — understands the importance of qualification for the team and, in a wider context, the sport on this island. 

“It’s absolutely massive, especially with a minority sport like hockey,” the midfielder continues.

gettyimages-587142138-594x594 The midfielder is desperate to reach a second Olympics. Source: Getty Images

“We’re obviously extremely grateful for the resources and the financial funding we do have, but it is a battle. It’s a hurdle we’re constantly trying to get over, so considering all that and it being a minority sport, consistently qualifying for every Olympic Games and World Cup from here on out is vitally important for the longevity and, more importantly, the survival of hockey in Ireland.

“It’s in a relatively good place but it is vitally important we do qualify Tokyo and it would be great to see both the men and the women’s team qualify because it acts as an inspiration to the younger generations.

That’s the hidden goal and drive for all of us here, to prove it is possible no matter what the odds are against you. We showed that in Rio and now we’ve to show it again for Tokyo.

The evolution of Ireland’s tactical game, coupled with the introduction of a number of younger players including Ben Walker, will be fascinating to watch over the course of this tournament, but with so much at stake, there is also the need for a win-at-all-costs mentality.

With six players from Rio — including O’Donoghue and captain David Harte — still involved, Ireland will look to use that experience to negotiate their way through the various hurdles, starting with the Scots. 

“It’s trying to think back to what worked well for us in getting to Rio and trying to replicate that with a new group of players,” O’Donoghue adds.

“Just being ruthless and possessing that cup mentality to make sure we do absolutely everything to be in that final two come the end of next week.”

Ireland fixtures:

  • Saturday 15 June: Ireland v Scotland, 10.15am
  • Sunday 16 June: Ireland v Egypt, 12.30pm
  • Tuesday 18 June: Ireland v Singapore, 2.45pm

Ireland squad: David Harte, James Carr, Conor Harte, Jonathan Bell, John Jackson, Luke Madeley, Lee Cole, Paul Gleghorne, Shane O’Donoghue, Stephen Cole, Daragh Walsh, Neal Glassey, Matthew Bell, Sean Murray, Eugene Magee, Matthew Nelson, Ben Walker, Michael Robson.

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Ryan Bailey

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